ST. PAUL, Minn. — At the corner of Hamline and Marshall Avenues sits a beat-up, run-down Holiday gas station.
Behind it to the west, there’s an even more superannuated, sheet-metal-encased, one-story building that could pass as an abandoned medical clinic on the St. Paul Planning Commission’s list of structures to axe.
But this is no long-forgotten shell, despite its appearance.
For the past five years, this is where Zach Moore transformed himself into a potential NFL Draft pick.
Inside the Concordia University-owned locale reside a couple of classrooms and a weight room not much bigger than that of most area high schools. Moore has spent a lot of hours adding muscle and quickness to his prototypical 6-foot-6, 285-pound frame here, where their version of state-of-the-art facilities is a temporary dome slapped on the Seafoam Stadium football field during the winter.
But that’s alright.
"I think I benefited more from a personal and character standpoint coming to a D-2 school, learning what it takes to get to virtually where I am without, virtually, anything," said Moore, who wrapped up his senior season of college football Nov. 17. "I don’t have the nice facilities and everything that the University of Minnesota Gophers have. It taught me all about the value of hard work and dedication and just staying humble and praying about it."
The fruits of those lessons include an invite to next month’s NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, a steady trickle of NFL front-office members on the Concordia campus during the fall and early projections that have Moore in the mix to hear his named called during the draft May 8-10, 2014.
Should that pipe dream come to pass, he’d be the latest of several Division II alums to try and make a living playing football — Danny Woodhead, Vincent Jackson, Adam Vinatieri, Janoris Jenkins and Vikings offensive linemen Brandon Fusco, J’Marcus Webb and Joe Berger are among 65 active NFL players listed on D2football.com.
None of them come from Concordia, where volleyball is king (the Golden Bears won their seventh straight national championship last week). None hail from the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, either, where the brand of football is stout but the individual talent levels aren’t.
But with every burst around the edge followed by a punishing sack during his collegiate tenure, Moore stamped himself as more of an exception.
"When Zach Moore makes it in the NFL and is a big-time player," Concordia coach Ryan Williams said, "nobody here will be surprised because of the tool set that he has."
See, unfavorable odds and Zach Moore have crossed paths before.
Zach Moore finished his collegiate career with 33 sacks, ninth in Division II history.
Moore was born Sept. 5, 1990 on Chicago’s East Side. When he was 6, his mother moved with him and his three sisters closer to downtown. About five years later, he settled down with his father and stepmother on the town’s notorious South Side in "the roughest of the rough area," he said.
"You either join a gang or play sports," Moore said. "In between, there’s not really an option."
A devoted Bears fan that was always skinny and grew gradually, Moore chose the latter and began playing football his freshman year at Simeon Career Academy. Originally a twiggy, 180-pound receiver, he gradually putting on weight and eventually shifted to the trenches, playing primarily offensive tackle.
But his raw power combined with springy speed — he ran the hurdles in high school, too — caused college recruiters to drool over his potential at defensive end.
Big Ten schools including Illinois, Wisconsin and Purdue took a hard look at him. There were some conversations with Ohio State and Notre Dame, too, Moore said.
From a physical standpoint, all he needed was some more muscle. "He was a tall, skinny kid out of Chicago, out of Simeon High School, boy," Williams said with a laugh. "He still had the length and he still had the range, and he had all the attributes."
But Moore never received a Division I offer, due to an issue that would prove both a repetitive burden and what he calls "a blessing in disguise."
The Megabus rides quickly became despicable.
Eight hours crammed into a seat meant for average-sized human beings, twice every week for a semester. It was the spring of Moore’s sophomore year of college, and each Friday, he boarded a bus in Chicago, spent Saturday and Sunday working in St. Paul, then returned home.
He had been academically disqualified from Concordia and spent the spring of 2010 living in Chicago and taking online classes through Western Oklahoma State College. He still had a job in Minnesota, and he also used the weekends to maintain face time with his "brothers" despite missing out on spring practice.
"It sucked to not be around your family for that amount of time," Moore said.
It wasn’t his only brush with grade issues. His high school GPA fell into the small window that rendered him eligible to compete in NCAA Division II but not Division I, hence the lack of big-time offers.
That’s how Moore ended up at Concordia in the first place.
Then the defensive coordinator at Minnesota-Duluth, Todd Strop had some contact with Moore during the recruitment process. It was Strop — whom Williams hired this past offseason to oversee Concordia’s defense — who passed Moore’s name along to the Bears staff, who invited him out for a visit and received his letter of intent via fax a week later.
Moore made an immediate impact his freshman year, playing in eight games. In his lone start, against Southwest Minnesota State, he had three solo tackles (two for loss), a sack and a forced fumble.
That outing foreshadowed his entire sophomore season, when he was named second-team all-region and led the NSIC in sacks with 10.
But that same year, as he tried to balance settling on a major with playing college football, Moore’s school marks suffered. Even after he was re-accepted to Concordia in the fall of 2011, it was discovered an online class he’d taken didn’t match up with NCAA academic standards.
A week before the first game of what would’ve been his junior football season, the Bears’ defensive coordinator at the time informed him Moore was ineligible to play and would have to redshirt.
"It was kind of shocking that it took that long for me to find out about it," Moore said. "But it was like, you get mad, what are you gonna do about it? It’s already been done. There’s nothing that you can do but just roll with the punches and move forward."
For Moore, that meant dominating practices with the scout team and frequently grappling with offensive lineman Tyler Hendrickson, who earned an invite to the Chicago Bears’ training camp in 2012 but was later cut. The extra year of development allowed Moore to hone his technique and spend plenty of time in that tin-can weight room without risking the wear and tear of playing in games.
"We’re talking about a guy that . . . we can hopefully say is gonna get drafted, and he was on the scout team his middle of his career after his sophomore year," Williams said.
In the meantime, Moore got his grades back on track. He returned to the playing field in 2012 and finished his career this past fall with 33 career sacks, ninth in Division II history.
This past season, he was named a finalist for the Gene Upshaw Award, handed out to Division II’s best lineman, and the Cliff Harris Award, given to the top defensive player from D-2, D-3 or the NAIA.
Most gratifyingly for Williams, his stud defensive end is on track to graduate in May with a criminal justice degree.
"It’s, to me, been the best pleasure out of anything, watching him mature as a man and watching him mature as a person," said Williams, who played quarterback at North Dakota State and was promoted from offensive coordinator at Concordia in 2011. "Obviously, it’s fun to watch him do what he does on the football field. Now, he’s matured and become a better player, but he didn’t have the best direction and didn’t make all the best choices coming out of high school, like a lot of kids."
Said Moore: "I realize I can’t ever go back to that again, because that was not a good place for me to be at the time. It was a very crucial turning point in my life."
Moore doesn’t rate as high as those top-of-the-line, first-round-type defensive ends in the NFL draft class of 2014. But he is, at the moment, in prime position to hear his name called in one of the later rounds although one prognostication site, Draftinsider.net, said scouts have given Moore a third-round grade.
NFLDraftScout.com ranks him the 24th defensive end in the pool — and that’s before the NFLPA game Jan. 18, a pro day and, possibly, a trip to a regional or the national NFL combine. Last year, 30 rush ends were drafted. The 2013 selection bonanza also featured 11 players from Division II colleges — more than the previous two years combined.
Moore hopes to continue that trend.
"I’m excited to really get this thing rolling and see how far I can take it," he said.
Moore said he’s heard from someone in every NFL front office. All but two teams have sent a representative to Concordia’s campus. Seahawks general manager John Schneider, Colts general manager Ryan Grigson and Browns director of player personnel Jon Sandusky all paid personal visits.
What Moore has to offer them is 4.8 40-yard dash speed and familiarity with a variety of schemes and techniques. The Bears stuck with a traditional 4-3 alignment during his middle three years of college, but Strop came in and reverted to the 3-4 lineup Moore had learned his freshman year.
He has received the most interest from teams that would use him in a five-technique — lined up even with the opposing offensive tackle’s outside shoulder, generally in a three-point stance — in a 3-4 defense, Williams said.
The coach is highly wont to add all the attention has had an effect on Moore, for the better.
"He didn’t get more arrogant; he just got more mature through this process," Williams said. "That’s just the polish on how he’s matured as a person. . . . . To see somebody go through that experience, to have over 50 NFL personnel come through the door and know that he’s more humble now than he was before, that’s pretty cool."
Having signed with agent Blake Baratz — a Minnetonka, Minn., native — Moore recently wrapped up finals and is headed to Performance Enhancement Professionals’ athletic training facility in Scottsdale, Ariz., to get ready for the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.
He’ll have several practice sessions, two of them televised, under the surveillance of either former Vikings coach Dennis Green or fellow retired NFL head man Dick Vermeil before playing in the game, slated for 5 p.m. Jan. 18 on ESPN2.
When Moore steps onto the StubHub Center turf on California State University Dominguez Hills’ campus that day, he’ll do so with gratitude, both for the school and program that gave him a chance and for the lessons sticking it out there the past five years have taught him.
"It’s been a great and humbling experience," Moore said. "Not too many people at this level get the opportunity that I’m blessed to be a part of."
Sitting in Strop’s office inside the Fandrei Center — a parking lot away from Concordia’s makeshift weights facility — Moore shifted the conversation to gaining exposure not just for himself, but the place he’s called home and put him in position to earn an NFL paycheck.
He owes it something.
"That’s the bigger picture," Moore said, "that I try to put this school on the map."